polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

In Memory of Neil Smith

by Peter Sigrist

If we were to gather the people throughout history who have changed the way cities are perceived today, Neil Smith would be there without question. His insights on urban nature, the production of space, development, gentrification, neoliberalism, globalization, public space, “unnatural disaster” and so much more helped give rise to current movements for socio-environmental justice.

Born in Scotland (as were Patrick Geddes and Ian McHarg, comparable urban luminaries from previous generations), Smith studied at St. Andrews and spent a year abroad at Penn. He then returned to the United States for doctoral studies with David Harvey at Johns Hopkins, where the ebbs and flows of capital in Baltimore informed his theory of uneven development. In Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space, a classic text based on his dissertation research, he explains:
Capital is continually invested in the built environment in order to produce surplus value and expand the basis of capital itself. But equally, capital is continually withdrawn from the built environment so that it can move elsewhere and take advantage of higher profit rates. The spatial immobilization of productive capital in its material form is no more or less a necessity than the perpetual circulation of capital as value. ... The pattern which results in the landscape is well known: development at one pole and underdevelopment at the other. ... In its constant drive to accumulate larger and larger quantities of social wealth under its control, capital transforms the shape of the entire world. No God-given stone is left unturned, no original relation with nature unaltered, no living thing unaffected. To this extent the problems of nature, of space, and of uneven development are tied together by capital itself. Uneven development is the concrete process and pattern of the production of nature under capitalism.
Finishing his Ph.D. in 1982, while Ronald Reagan was in the White House just an hour to the south, he chose a path of reasoned critique and action, challenging foregone conclusions about the nature of development.

I first encountered Smith’s work through environmental studies. With remarkable vision he united nature and space with politics and social justice, changing the way I viewed the world and my place in it. Years later I saw him speak, and was amazed at his calm intensity — utterly lucid and engaging without notes or slides, never pretentious, impractical or dogmatic.

Neil Smith’s accomplishments are many, and his influence broad. His students — from Don Mitchell to Richard Florida — have built upon his legacy and influenced cities in their own rights. More about his life and work can be found at neil-smith.net, where a number of his publications are available free of charge.

News of his passing brought deep sadness, but his presence remains strong. The way he combined theory with practice in exposing injustice and working toward a better future will always be an invaluable source of inspiration.

Credits: Photo of Neil Smith from CUNY Anthropology.

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